Officials of the sugar corporation and Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) are expected to meet the Labour Ministry this Thursday for conciliatory talks on the issue of the Diamond Estate workers.
GAWU officials told Stabroek News yesterday that the meeting has been finalized and both entities are making preparations for Thursday’s conciliatory talks. The Diamond estate workers are seeking severance pay packages after the East Bank Demerara estate’s operations were scaled down by the corporation recently.
The two bodies, along with the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees (NAACIE) the other union which represents sugar workers, met some two weeks ago to discuss the issue but the meeting concluded in a deadlock as GuySuCo held on to its position that it would not offer severance for the 400 workers, who are being offered employment for the next crop at the East Demerara estates at La Bonne Intention (LBI) and Enmore.
In a column featured in last weekend’s issue of The Mirror, Speaker of the National Assembly Ralph Ramkarran argued that the 1997 Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act (TESPA) makes provisions for GuySuCo’s argument, as the corporation has offered its Diamond Estate workers alternative employment within the 10-mile zone at its LBI estate, where there is a shortage of staff.
GAWU told this newspaper yesterday that it has made a note of the piece of legislation, but that it is arguable in court.
The act’s objectives are to “provide for the conditions governing termination of employment and grant of redundancy or severance pay to employees and for matters connected therewith”. Ramkarran stated that severance is not payable for several reasons, “including where the employee unreasonably refuses to accept an offer of re-employment by the employer at the same place of work or within a radius of ten miles therefrom under no less favourable conditions than those such employee enjoyed immediately prior to the termination.”
According to Ramkarran, the offer by GuySuCo to the workers formerly employed at Diamond of jobs at LBI satisfies the above conditions. He stated that GuySuCo’s argument is that it has satisfied the requirements of TESPA. And that it “is cash strapped as well and cannot afford to pay the amount it would be required to as severance”.
Ramkarran also criticized persons whom he said have been “imposing themselves” on the workers and offering support for the workers’ demand for severance pay. Among them are lawyers, he stated, adding “they seem oblivious of the provisions of TESPA, based on which the workers do not have a legal claim. Their agitation raises false hopes and creates industrial dissention. It engenders disaffection between workers and employer and workers and union.” He said the motive of the lawyers is “another form of exploitation, this time for political gain.”
Ramkarran said he sympathizes with the affected workers and GAWU, but according to him, the workers cannot be effectively represented if they are misled, “by lawyers with political designs into believing that the law is on their side”.
The ongoing issue hinges on the corporation’s plan to resuscitate the industry, but according to the unions representing the workers, the Diamond estate remains ideally suited for cane cultivation. They said maintenance of the estate “would save the corporation millions of dollars [it would spend] to occupy new lands which may not be equally productive.”